Sermon for Pentecost 15 2017

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

One element of this morning’s Gospel which I think we rarely focus on is just how much money Jesus is talking about in the parable. We learn that the slave owes ten thousand talents to his master and that the same slave is owed one hundred denarii. It’s easy enough to leave the story knowing simply that the slave owes more than he is owed, but we miss an important element if that’s all we know.

In reality, we are dealing with measures of currency here which we can estimate. We know that the wage for a day’s labor in the first century was one denarius. This means that what the slave wants from his compatriot is no small sum. It’s almost a third of his annual income. It’s not like he had just spotted his friend a fiver. I think most of us would be more than a little concerned if somebody owed us this much and couldn’t pay up. So, at first we might have some sympathy for the slave.

But then, look at how much debt had been forgiven. Ten thousand talents. A talent is a weight of measure rather than a currency, but most scholars of the period in question have determined that a talent was worth roughly six thousand denarii. So ten thousand talents would be sixty million denarii. That’s sixty million days worth of wages- 164,383 and a half years, not counting Sabbath days.

If that’s hard for you to get your mind around, we can look at it a different way. Like I said earlier, a talent is not a currency but a weight of measure. It was roughly thirty-three kilograms or about seventy-three pounds. When used as a measure of debt and credit in the ancient world, the assumption would have been that gold was the basis of determination (there was no such thing as fiat money until very recently). So, if the slave owed his master ten thousand talents, he would have owed him 330,000 kilograms of gold. Right now, a kilogram of gold is worth nearly 60,000 dollars. So, if we were to assume that gold were basically as valuable then as it is now, the slave would have owed his master the equivalent of 19 billion 800 million dollars.

Of course, this is ludicrous. Nobody would lend an individual, especially his own slave, 20 billion dollars. Only 8 people in America, the richest nation in the world, have more money than that. I think the point, however, is just how ridiculous it seems. How could one get so bent out of shape about a few thousand dollars when he just had a twenty billion dollar debt forgiven?

Well, as ridiculous as it seems, we do just that. We have been regenerated—given new life and the forgiveness of sins—through Baptism. Christ died for our sins that we might live, but what do we do if somebody says something nasty about us? What do we do if somebody cuts us off in traffic or cheats us out of a few bucks or acts rude to us? We don’t forgive. We do what the enemy of the psalmist is described as doing:

He put on cursing like a garment*
let it soak into his body like water
and into his bones like oil;
Let it be to him like the cloak which he wraps around himself,*
and like the belt that he wears continually.

We love cursing and take no delight in blessing. We let our petty beliefs about what we deserve push us to clutch tightly to our resentment until we are defined by it.
I get very worried, as many of you know, when the death of anybody, even a monster like Osama bin Laden, causes celebration in the streets. I get very worried when state executions are presented as justice being done. What concerns me is public reaction, and I think it’s safe to say that mercy is not a virtue which our society values terribly much these days.

Jesus calls us to forgive our brother. There is a translation issue in Jesus’ response to Peter. He might have said “forgive seventy times” or “seventy seven times” or “seventy times seven” (that’s 490 times, but the way). What precisely Jesus said doesn’t matter so much, though, because it seems that what he meant was “keep on forgiving”. There’s no limit.

There’s a lovely prayer attributed to St. Francis in the back of the prayerbook (page 833 if you’re interested), and it seems to sum up what Jesus is saying to us today: it is in pardoning that we are pardoned. The greatest gift we’ve ever been given is pardon, but it comes with a caveat. Being forgiven we are obliged to forgive.

It’s hard sometimes, particularly when we are sinned against in ways more brutal than a rude word or being cut off in traffic. Unless we get around to forgiving, though, the Cross is emptied of its meaning for us. When we fail to show mercy, we are even more ridiculous than the slave who demanded his hundred denarii. When we confuse justice with revenge we may as well be nailing Christ’s hands to the cross ourselves, because we’ve forgotten what that sacrifice was all about to begin with. But when we forgive, we start to become more worthy of that label which we give ourselves. We become more worthy of being called Christians.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 14 2017

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

We had a joke in seminary about coming up with something to preach about about when you weren’t sure how to approach the week’s lessons- when in doubt, denounce something. It’s not really the best approach, but sometimes the readings make it impossible to avid. So, considering this week’s Gospel, I want to speak this morning about gossip. We love hearing gossip, and we love sharing it. We love to be voyeurs, to know what’s going on in the lives of our fellows, even if we have no business knowing it. We love to whisper secret slander to our friends, because it makes us feel like we’re the source of all knowledge worth possessing. And we love most to share evidence that we ourselves have been mistreated, even if we have no intention of confronting the person who mistreated us. Indeed, it can be a great deal more fun to remain aloof from our enemy, because we can tell more people and gain more satisfaction by vilifying him than by being reconciled to him.

In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus gives us another way. If we feel somebody has mistreated us, talk to him in private. If that doesn’t work, take a friend or two and try to hash it out. If that doesn’t work, bring it to the church, which is to say discuss your grievance openly with the authority of the community in which the accuser and the accused wish to maintain bonds of affection.

This is a great deal more effective than whispering insults to those uninvolved. But, as I said, we do not always wish to rectify the situation, loving the opportunity to gossip more than we desire to live in love with our brothers and sisters. The important thing about Jesus’ mandate here is not that it is more effective, but that it is more Christian. If we love our brother, which is our obligation, then we should avoid what scripture calls “murmuring in the tents” and which today we call malicious gossip.

Did you know that there is more in the psalms about malicious gossip than any other sin? Well, there is. Do you know what led God to declare that the generation of Israelites who left Mount Sinai would wander in the desert until only their children and grandchildren were left to enter the Promised Land? It was neither idolatry nor sexual promiscuity nor any other sin which we are quick to denounce. It was because the Israelites were “murmuring in their tents”, gossiping, that they were forbidden from entering the land which had been promised.

We must be careful about gossip, then, because it is deadly serious. We must catch ourselves, because we can do it without even thinking about it. We must examine our intentions before sharing information about another, because sometimes our intentions are hidden from us. Is something we say meant to encourage prayer and concern or is it meant to share a bit of juicy information?

I once heard a podcast of This American Life about gossip. An author read a short story she had written about a reality television producer whose job was to encourage malicious gossip during individual interviews with the fictional program’s contestants. If you’ve watched any reality TV, you probably know that backbiting is encouraged because it helps ratings. This is the culture in which we live and at least television executives have figured out that we love to hear and share gossip so much that even the murmuring in the studios of people we don’t know can draw us in and entertain us. This makes it so much more difficult to follow Jesus’ directive, given in a time well before television and blogs and all the other media used to air people’s smutty laundry.

This makes it all the more critical that we speak with care and discretion. It’s not just a matter of propriety; it’s a matter of Christianity. Living in love with the brethren means speaking with love about him. Only in doing this within can Christ’s Church be prepared to weather the storms which beset her from without.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 13 2017

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

As you may remember from last week’s Gospel, blessed Peter—who seemed to have made a career out of getting Jesus’ message wrong—finally got it profoundly right, and was granted authority. He was made the rock upon which the Church would be founded and was given power to bind and loose: that is, to determine the disciplines by which the Church would govern her children.

Well, as it turns out, poor Peter doesn’t get an opportunity to relish in Jesus’ affirmation of him. He doesn’t have time to get chuffed about being made the chief apostle. In this morning’s Gospel reading—which takes place within the same conversation as last week’s—Peter is knocked down a few pegs.

Peter’s response to Jesus’ prediction of his own crucifixion is a natural one: “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you,” he cries out. To all appearances, Peter wants nothing more than for his Lord, whom he loved, to avoid suffering and death. We should feel the same for those whom we love!

This seems to make Jesus’ reply a bit less than sensitive: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.” The parallel in Mark’s Gospel is even more shocking. Jesus uses precisely the same words, but Mark, usually the most austere of the evangelists, embellishes the story a bit by noting that Jesus words were meant as a “rebuke”. The Greek verb is “epitimao”: the same word used in the New Testament for when Jesus casts out demons. Jesus, here, quite literally demonizes Peter.

The Jesus of scripture and of history is not the “warm, fuzzy” fellow we, who care so much about affirmation and pleasantness, have made him out to be. He’s not “sensitive” in the cheap way we polite, contemporary Westerners use the word. He’s not worried too much about hurting feelings, even the feelings of one extremely close to him, if it means getting the point across. The point is important enough that it had to be grasped. Indeed, it is the most important point of all: namely that the path we Christians tread is the surest way to suffering and sacrifice if we’re really living up to the name “Christian”.

“If any man would come after me,” Jesus says, “let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” We all have a cross to bear, but once again, our polite, comfortable “Christianity”—which, I contend is not the Christianity of Christ—cheapens the sense of Jesus’ words. One’s gouty toe or noisy neighbor or laundry-avoiding spouse is not one’s “cross to bear.” Those are irritations, no doubt, and we can face even greater difficulties than these which, I would humbly submit, are not “crosses to be borne” either. You see, they leave out the operative phrase in Jesus’ explanation of the crosses we bear: whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. There is an element of volition missing from the “gouty toe” or “noisy neighbour” situation. We gain our souls by choosing to lay down that which really burdens us: self-satisfaction and egoism and the need to control others. The crosses we bear—selflessness and loving sacrifice and the call to serve Christ in all persons—turn out not to be very heavy burdens at all. In fact, they are a great deal more like life-preservers, lifting us out of a sea made putrid with the jetsam of human pride that we might be pulled aboard the ark, which is the Church as Christ intends her to be.

In his Epistle to the Romans, Paul reminds us how heavy that Cross may seem, but if we think about it for any length of time, we’ll recognize it’s quite the opposite. Perhaps the hardest-seeming requirement for Christian faithfulness is found in this morning’s epistle:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them…  Beloved, never avenge yourselves… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

It seems like a heavy burden to live this way, but nothing could be further from the truth. How heavy a burden it is to hold on to anger, to live with resentment for our enemies, and how great a relief it is to let that go, to bear the Cross of self-abnegation and forgiveness rather than the yoke of bitterness!

What Peter forgot is that the twin idols of “comfortable living”—security and enlightened self-interest—are a great deal heavier than we can handle; that even what seems at first blush to be genuine concern can be a mask worn by those idols. Naming the idols which we clutch more closely than the Cross of Christ can be more than a little uncomfortable. We may feel the Eye of God, which alone can pierce our souls, can cut rather than comfort. In the end, though, permitting God to root out of our hearts that which really weighs us down, will sting only for a little while. We will then find that Christ’s yoke is easy and His burden is light, that the Cross, borne with confidence and humility, becomes a part of us, an essential appendage, whose weight is so close to us that we cease to notice it and which grants us a life more abundant than we ever believed possible.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.